Thoughts On: The WSET Diploma Unit 3 exam

So, I have a single exam left ahead of me in order to successfully complete the WSET Diploma, and it’s the big one; Unit 3 – ‘Light Wines of the World’. As the WSET Diploma is broken down into 6 units, what ‘Light Wines of the World’ basically means is everything that wasn’t included in the previous 5. So no sparkling wines, no spirits and no fortified wines. The information learnt in both ‘The Global Business of Wine’ and ‘Production Methods’ will need to be called upon to answer questions in more depth, but essentially this is about white, red, rose and unfortified sweet wines from every major wine producing region in the world.

The major obstacle is the sheer size and scope of the exam. It’s split into two parts, one to be completed in the morning and one to be completed in the afternoon of the 7th January, a little over 6 months from now. This single exam is worth 50% of the marks for the entire of the WSET Diploma and the minimum recommended study time is 300 hours. My experience with the other, considerably smaller units was that the minimum time really was that; the bare minimum, so aiming to exceed that is strongly recommended. The exam itself is split thus:

Part I – A blind tasting of 12 wines to be completed in 2 hours, with full tasting notes as per the WSET lexicon and additional conclusions to be made depending on the flight. This is trickier than it looks but, famous last words, I’m not overly concerned about it. I practice blind tasting on a weekly basis and having written somewhere in the region of 1,500 WSET tasting notes, I’m pretty familiar with writing them in the time frame required. As a result I’ll continue to practice tasting in exam conditions, but the vast majority of my time will be spent on learning the theory part of the unit.

Part II – 5 essay and/or short answer questions to be completed in 3 hours, with one of the questions being mandatory and the other 4 chosen from a group of 5 (Only one can be avoided). This is where 95% of my time is going to be spent, as the amount of information required is enormous and having never done higher education, my essay and exam techniques leave an awful lot to be desired.

So, with the split clear and obvious, the only remaining task is to choose how to best spend 6 months of studying whilst balancing a small business, extra work on the side, a newly born child and hopefully some semblance of a social life. Whilst I will no doubt turn into over-drive come December and double the amount of time spent studying, the size of the task means that consistent studying has to be undertaken now to avoid failure. With that in mind, here is my plan:

June (Or what’s left of it)2 hours per day to be spent reading through the 170 page study guide and re-reading David Bird’s “Understanding Wine Technology”. According to the examiners report, a lot of students completely forget to revisit the basics of viticulture and vinification, and lose obvious marks when asked a question that requires an explanation of something integral to the region; ie. The impact of planting densities in Burgundy, trellising systems in New Zealand, reverse-osmosis in poor vintages in Bordeaux and so on. 10X2 = 20 hours

July and August – 2.5 hours a day. This is the time when I need to really gather information and resources together, slowly start reading through it and highlight key points. Every section of the study guide has the Oxford Companion to Wine references to study, and that either means lugging around the encylopedic tome with me everywhere, or using my membership to JancisRobinson.com to prepare a study guide and print it out. The latter it is. This is going to be a huge but essential task. 62X 2.5 = 155 hours This may seem like quite a lot during the summer, but July and August in Barcelona are so unbearably hot sitting inside studying with a huge fan blowing directly into my face is actually quite an attractive option!

September and October – 2 hours a day. Study time in it’s simplest form; read, re-read and read the material again. The plan here is also to start looking at some of the more recent trends and developments in the individual wine regions, as well as classifying key producers. 61 X 2 = 122 hours

November – 2.5 hours a day. Similar to the previous block, with the exception that now I also have to check statistics. For each country, it’s important to know the Sales in both volume and value, a basic over-view of trends and have an idea of their major export markets. The reason I’m leaving this until November is if I start with it, I’ll lose the will to live by the end of July. By November, that ship’s already sailed anyway. 30X 2.5 = 75 hours

December – 3 hours a day. 3 hours a day over Christmas sounds quite awful and this is why the pass rate for the January exams is so low. Revision, exam questions and more revision. 25X 3 = 75 hours (I know I’m clearly not going to be able to study every day here, so no point including them all)

January – Panic stricken revision – literally anything that can be done in the days before the exam.

So, that’s about the extent of it. 450 hours in total planned and if you reduce 10% of that as a sort of reality check, I’ll have to work hard to get to 400 hours done over the next 6 months. Now that I write it down, it looks quite depressing but also manageable. In the past, I’ve managed the workload by studying as much of it as possible first thing in the morning and that’s what I’ll do again. Needless to say, if you don’t see much of me over the coming months, you’ll know why!

Incidentally, I’m very much looking forward to an exam-free 2018 after January. I’m a big proponent of wine education and I owe a lot of my understanding of wine to the WSET courses I’ve taken. However, I think a full year of slowly absorbing information without any exam pressure will be lovely, useful and well deserved! It’ll also give me a lot more time to focus on other projects as well as more time with my new family. However, there’s a good 400 hours between now and then so let’s get started!

Special moments and special bottles: La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva 2001

It seems odd to post about special bottles in back to back entries, but it just so happened that everything came together at once this month. Two years ago I bought two very special bottles of Rioja from my favourite Bodega in the region, La Rioja Alta. The wines are the 890 Gran Reserva range from 2001, the pinnacle of the winery and benchmark wines for the whole region. The reason behind purchasing them was a bit whimsical; myself and my girlfriend had decided to start a family and I wanted to put something away to celebrate when the time came. The idea was to purchase two wines, one that I could open when my first child was born and the second on their 18th birthday and share with them. This requires a few criteria in order to work properly:

1. A wine that is approachable with a certain level of maturity yet that can continue to age and evolve gracefully for at least 2 decades.

2. Something that should stand out in the memory for its style, quality and, frankly, how delicous it is.

3. Ideally it shouldn’t bankrupt me!

La Rioja Alta have been my favourite produce in DOC Rioja for a long time now and in fact were the first taste of what I consider ‘real’ Rioja to be. I suppose I should explain that. When I first started taking an interest in wine, there was a strong anti-Rioja sentiment in Barcelona and that was a formative part of my first interactions with wine. With context, I can see that it wasn’t a dig at the quality of Rioja wines but more of a push for local Catalan wines to take prominence in the local wine scene, which makes a lot of sense in itself. This was, for myself at least, compounded by the fact the first Rioja wines I tried were…well… terrible. Cheap and flimsy wines bought from supermarkets and corner shops made it easy to write Rioja off, especially considering I was drinking good Catalan wines, wines from Ribera del Duero and Jumilla at the same time. With all the confidence that only comes from knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re talking about, I was able to proclaim ‘Oh yes, I don’t drink a lot of Rioja. Far too thin and oaky for me.” Enter: La Rioja Alta.

Founded in 1890 as a joint effort between 5 wine-making families, La Rioja Alta has gone on to become one of the most famous bodegas in DOC Rioja. Fiercely traditional and unwavering in style over the years, it has remained a relatively moderate size and focuses heavily on quality, opening newer bodegas in Rioja, Rias Baixas and Ribera del Duero to expand rather than risk any change in the original production. All wines produced here are red, aged for extended periods in American oak and the vast majority of grapes are produced on land owned by the winery itself. My first experience was the 904 Gran Reserva range, a single step below the 890, from 2001. The complexity of the nose and palate blew me away, and having been introduced through wines that were pushing 15% alcohol, the cooler profile and smoother tannic texture was a lovely surprise as well. I immediately went out to purchase more of their wines and became a fan by the end of the week. Their 890 Gran Reserva range is only made in certain vintages and sits as their flagship wine, the crème de la crème of traditional Rioja.

La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva, 2001

Beautiful brick-red colour with an orange hue at the rim and an absolutely overwhelming nose; dried, brambly red and black fruits, sandalwood, dill, vanilla, baking spices, tobacco, caramel and some savoury, leafy aromas. Very heady and concentrated if still quite young. Masses of flavour intensity, acidity and a long, long finish with already quite integrated and smooth tannins. Probably the best Rioja I’ve ever tried, beating both the 1995 and 1998 vintages I tried over the last year hands down. Not a cheap wine but worth the money and a real indication of just how remarkable good Rioja can be.

Of course, the entire reason I opened the bottle was to celebrate the birth of my son, Dante. I’m not going to go into any detail about the wonders of becoming a father, as I’ll probably never stop, other than to say my heart has never been quite so full of love. I bought these bottles with the intention of celebrating the birth of my first child, and so I have, but for all the beauty and magic in the glass, nothing quite compares to seeing his lovely little face in the morning. It’s 18 years until we open the second bottle; I can only hope he’s found a taste for good wine by then, as it should be in a glorious place. Here’s to the future, my son, and everything it brings.

Special moments and special bottles; Sassicaia 2001


I still remember my first real moment of joy with wine, the feeling of this enormous world opening in front of me, the history, the culture and the sheer complexity and scope of it all. I’ve had this same feeling since, but the first experience I had of it was in a classroom on an uncharacteristically warm Monday morning in London, preparing to start my intensive WSET Level 3 course. As I’d chosen to bypass the first two levels of the WSET, I found myself very much the odd one out; not only had I not brought a spittoon but I hadn’t ever considered spitting wine out before in my life. I didn’t know the basics of wine production, let alone the nuances of different countries, regions and producers, nor had I tasted anything outside of Spain before. It was truly a baptism of fire and yet the only thing I recall was how much fun I had. It was a life-changing week for me and everything since has been inspired by what I learnt there.

I’m still relatively new to the wine industry, as that week was only just over 2 years ago now. Even so, everything has changed as I’ve spent the time between constantly studying, working and trying to improve my understanding of wine. The wines I’ve tasted can now be counted in the thousands rather than the hundreds. I’ve gorged myself on study guides, books, podcasts, blogs and trips to wineries. I’ve worked a harvest and seen some very exciting and very boring sides of the industry. I’m 5/6s of the way through the WSET Diploma and have organised hundreds of tastings in Barcelona. Despite being a newcomer, I can no longer be blown away quite in the same way that I was at the beginning, as it is with all things. However, ‘Ah ha!’ moments still come quite frequently as I have so much still to learn, yet they tend to come as individual pieces of the puzzle, rather than someone drawing back a curtain and showcasing the finished article.

Often these moments come when several disconnected facts find common ground and helps explain a concept you’ve been struggling to get your head around. In tasting, they’re even more common-place as you slowly learn how your palate responds to acidity, tannins, alcohol and the other components of wine. Probably my all time favourite, though, is trying a wine you know all about theoretically, have spoken about and yet have never had the opportunity to taste. A wine that has some sort of historical relevance to a region, a grape or a style. Usually these wines come with pretty hefty price tags and a fair amount of fame, so actually getting hold of them is easier said than done but when it does come along, it’s all the sweeter for it. Last week I had the distinct pleasure of one of these rare ‘Ah ha!’ moments in the shape of the famous ‘Super Tuscan’, Sassicaia.

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2001

A lot has been written about Sassicaia, arguably Italy’s most famous wine, so I won’t add a great deal of detail, other than to say it was a relevatory experience for me. As I was learning about appellation laws in Europe, I also learnt about the concept of ‘Super Tuscans’, a term coined largely by the US and UK wine trade to describe wines that were made within Tuscany, often using a blend of international varieties in spite of local regulations. Sassicaia was one of the very first, a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, and has gone on to create a legendary reputation largely due to the craft and skill of consultant Giacomo Tachis, as well as the vision and drive of the owner of the estate, Mario Incisa. The resulting success of these wines, originally designated as Italian Table Wine or “Vino da Tavola” forced the Italian authorities to create a separate designation known as ‘IGT’ to accommodate wine-makers who wanted to be more creative with their production, without conforming to DOC and DOCG regulations. Such was the success of Sassicaia in particular, that it now has it’s own DOC within Bolgheri DOCG, making it the only wine in Italy to enjoy this distinction.

For a wine that’s moving onto it’s 16th birthday it was still remarkably youthful in both appearance and profile; a lovely deep ruby colour with only a slight bricking towards the rim. Beautifully aromatic with lots of blackberry, damson and plum fruit, along with the tell-tale roasted green bell-pepper and slightly minty note. This wine is in an excellent place with lots of leather, tobacco and earthy, savoury elements layered behind, but the freshness and life is the most remarkable thing about it. This will happily age for another 10 years although I was delighted to have caught it now, when the finely grained tannins had their last shred of grip and texture before becoming completely integrated. A very moving bottle of wine.

I drank the wine catching up with a friend over a long and very enjoyable lunch at Monvinic wine bar in Barcelona. Did it cost a lot? It certainly did, €137 to be precise, and that was just for the wine. Would I do it again? In a heart-beat. I’ll probably never experience the same mind-blowing revelations that I did when I first started to learn about wine and that’s ok. As long as I find and occasionally splash out on wines that give me these ‘Ah ha!’ moments, that connect the dots between hundreds of hours of studying, I’ll be more than content. The rest of learning about wine is a slow collection of knowledge and practicing continuously, all made worthwhile by these occasional, brilliant bottles. If they can be shared in good company again, well, I’d say that would make me a very happy man indeed!

Thoughts on: Fira del Vi 2017

This year was the first chance I’ve had to attend the Fira del Vi festival in Falset, a small but important town close to the regions of DO Montsant and DOQ Priorat. The festival takes place in the first weekend of May, and producers from both regions offer tastings at the fair as well as organising small events around the Falset at the same time, all in the name of promoting the wines of the regions. With it taking place over an entire weekend and celebrating the wines of two of Catalunyas most famous and popular wine regions, it’s heavily attended with somewhere in the region of 15,000 visitors flocking to the town (population 3000, by comparison) to drink and make merry. It was suggested to me that I sign up for the day of ‘professional’ tasting the Tuesday after the weekend itself, when things would be a little quieter and I wouldn’t stick out so much with my notepad and desire to spit wine rather than drink it (at least until lunch!). With the sense of childish glee that only comes to those who get out as little as I do, I embarked on an early train with my friend Alex, and proceeded to chatter away like an escaped inmate for the entirety of the 2 hour journey.

It turns out, I stuck out anyway but less because of my notepad and more due to my blonde hair and blue eyes. Like many regions, the Catalan wine community is quite insular with most of the wine-makers, salesman, distributors and major figures in the industry well acquainted with one another; this isn’t Bordeaux or Burgundy, where the world of wine descends regularly to taste and score every vintage. However, in true Falset fashion, the reception was warm and welcoming, with only the occasional snigger when I butchered Catalan pronunciation during my inquiries. Fortunately Miquel Hudin, author of the Vinologue guides to the regions and Porerra resident, was on hand to steer us around for the first hour and introduce us to some lovely people, which I’m almost certain was also how we got to try some special wines that weren’t immediately available.

The event itself was set in a sort of car-park in the middle of the town itself, with all the producers making a circle with their stalls with small clusters set up in the centre. There were apparently 65 producers showing their wines over the course of the weekend according to the guide we were given, but there were perhaps only 50 or so for the final day. However, not only were some of the ‘big’ names of Priorat present and pouring but also a whole host of smaller producers that I hadn’t had the chance to try before, so I set about trying to taste the entire range of as many producers as I could, stopping only to make notes on wines of particular interest, of which there were a great many. Lunch was at 3pm and our original plan was to come back afterwards and finish with the producers we hadn’t had a chance to visit. Unfortunately, it turns out that lunch was the signal for the end of the day and so we missed out on the fantastic wines of Val Llach, Clos Figueras and a few more. However, I will definitely be back next year and I will be bringing some wine for lunch to avoid having to very sheepishly ask producers for a full glass of wine just as they’re closing, like some sort of alcoholic, purple-toothed Oliver Twist. (My thanks to Clos Figueras for bailing me out of that one!)

Whilst the quality of the wines was universally very high, these 3 were my highlights of the event for very different reasons.

Most memorable wine – Mas Doix 1999 (Poured from a magnum)

A bit of an unfair one as it wasn’t really part of the normal line-up but if Mas Doix 1999 isn’t your wine of the day, then you and I go to very different tastings. We were poured this wine, secretly stashed away, by Valentí Llagostera, co-owner of Mas Doix and a warm, friendly character. After the 1998 vintage, he along with Ramon Llagostera and their cousin Josep Maria Doix, decided to stop selling their grapes to the local co-operative and set out on their own. They’re now one of the most highly respected producers in all of Catalunya and rightly so; were it not for this wine, the 1902 Carignan would be up for ‘Wine of the Day’ – without a doubt the best Carignan I’ve ever tried.

The 1999 Mas Doix defies the adage that Priorat can’t age and is made from roughly equal parts of Garnacha and Carineña, before around 16 months ageing in French oak. At almost 18 years of age, this still holds a remarkable amount of ripe and dried black fruits, a beetroot character and then plenty of delicious, savoury notes; leather, dried violets, wet leaves and black pepper. Still fresh with soft, integrated tannins and so much flavour – absolutely delicious. The finish just went on and on. A very special wine indeed.

Best value wine – Les Sentius 2012

One of the greatest surprises of the day was just how much excellent wine was being served at lower price points; the world knows what Priorat can offer at 50 euros and above, but it isn’t a region well known for its value-for-money wines. A great deal of the wines I was enjoying were below 20 euros a bottle and quite a few closer to 10! Fighting off some stiff competition from Gran Clos, Cal Batllet and Malondro was this excellent wine from Celler Joan Simo.

The gentleman at the stall was none other than Gerard Batllevell Simo and owner of the estate. Like many grape-growers in the region, Gerard decided to stop selling his grapes off locally and start producing his own wine in 1999. The Les Sentius bottling sits in the middle of the range, with Viatge al Priorat at a lower price point and the excellent Les Eres Vinyes Velles and Les Eres Especial Carners considerably more expensive. Les Sentius is a big, bold Priorat wine with lots of power and spice, ripe dark fruits and herbal characteristics. It’s remarkably fresh for a wine with 15% alcohol and I’d love to try it alongside a hearty stew of some sort, although at a pinch I could be convinced to sit down with a bottle by itself! At around 15 euros a bottle, this is remarkably good value for money and I have already ordered a couple of bottles for future drinking.

Biggest surprise – La Solana Alta 2014

The feeling of discovering a special wine completely by accident is such a fun thing. Ultimately, a lot of wine is going to be within a certain frame-work stylistically, particularly in the Old World regions in Europe where rules and regulations dictate so much in terms of what can be produced. Even excellently made wine can end up tasting quite ordinary when tasted alongside 50 of its peers, and it takes a special wine to jump out of these line-ups and really demand some attention. The first time I experienced this was also in Priorat and involved a slightly older bottle of Clos Mogador (2009), which remains my favourite producer from the region to this day.

On Tuesday that wine was La Solana Alta 2014 from Bodegas Mas Alta. The winery itself is a relatively new project (1999 once again!) and production is overseen by Michel Tardieu and Philippe Cambie from the Rhone Valley; two very important names in France and a hint to the origins of the elegance and style in the resulting wines. A brand new release in its first vintage and a blend of 50% Garnacha Blanc and 50% Carineña Blanc, I found myself returning to this wine over and over again. A really beautiful balance of delicate stone fruit, melon, brioche and subtle oak with lots of intensity and a long, long finish; this wine took me completely by surprise. Effortlessly elegant without losing a shred of concentration and could well be the best Catalan white wine I’ve tried so far. I silently kicked myself for forgetting to ask if I could buy a bottle or 3 at the event, as the price of 40 euros at Vila Viniteca, currently their only distributor in Barcelona, isn’t the friendliest. This will certainly find itself into a future event for one of our weekly wine tastings here in Barcelona, as well as a space in my fridge.

Overall, this was a really lovely day out to a well organised event and I will certainly be back next year. There were so many good wines being served, and not always from the well known names of the region. I’ve already plugged Miquel a little earlier on but if you truthfully want to understand the wines and culture of Montsant and Priorat, his Vinologue Guides are the best way to get started. We finished the day with a delicious bottle of Ribera del Duero from one of my favourite producers, Finca Villacreces, from the 1998 vintage; 25 euros on the restaurant list of the Hostal Sport in central Falset. Needless to say, the train journey home was a sleepy one.

Thoughts on: Judging Quality in Wine with the WSET Lexicon

wine-judging

So, I spent the entire of yesterday learning how to taste and analyse sparkling wines as objectively as possible, in exam conditions. This ranged from cheap and simple Prosecco to incredibly expensive Vintage Champagne, Lambrusco to sparkling Shiraz and a little bit of everything in between from all corners of the globe. As usual, the WSET method of tasting focuses mainly on the students ability to correctly analyse a wine, breaking it down in terms of flavours, aromas and the structure. However, at the Diploma level a great deal more emphasis is then placed on your ability to qualify the quality level of the wine, ranging from ‘poor’ to ‘outstanding’ with a substantial amount of justification needing to be given regardless of your decision.

I’ve always appreciated the methology I’ve learnt from studying with the WSET; it’s a very rigorous, methodical approach that forms a solid foundation for practically any sort of tasting you’ll be required to do professionally in the industry and can easily be built upon to be a little more flexible. Essentially, it’s designed on the following framework:

Balance – Is the wine balanced? Does anything stick out unpleasantly, or does any one part of the wine overpower the others? Sometimes very acidic wines can become a little tart if the flavours aren’t concentrated enough. Sweet wines can taste cloying and sloppy if the acidity is too low to support the sugar concentration. Alcohol can be quite aggressive and hot if it’s unreasonably high in the context of the wine. Even something you really enjoy in a wine, say bright, fruity flavours, can make a wine quite disappointing if everything else falls flat by comparison.

Length – How long do the desirable flavours last for? Some wines can be quite basic and still be well balanced. Some wines can be quite basic and give the impression of quality, often due to manipulation of oak, lees contact and extraction. A good, long finish however, is essentially impossible to achieve without healthy, top quality grapes and as such, is a mark of real quality.

Intensity – How intense are the flavours in the wine? This is something I find is often misjudged as it’s easy to confuse power and size with intensity. You can have a 15% ABV Barossa Shiraz that has real intensity on the palate but at the same time, a 9.5% ABV Riesling from the Mosel Valley can pack just as much of a punch. Intensity is the strength and impact of those flavours and how they’re delivered. I recall Jancis Robinson MW referring to her first experience with Musigny Grand Cru as being like ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’ which very much encapsulates the concept.

Complexity – How complex are the aromas and flavours in the wine? Is it a young, simple wine or is there a level of development there? Can you easily distinguish between primary fruit flavours, secondary influences of wine-making and the tertiary effects of bottle ageing? Does it improve the wine as a whole?

wset-outside

Now, it’s fair to say that this system isn’t perfect. I’m sure many of us can think of a wine that is absolutely delicious without being overly complex. I’m sure that, as individual consumers, some of us like wine that is sometimes a little bit unbalanced providing it’s in favour of an attribute we happen to particularly enjoy. It’s also been noted that certain wine styles, particularly those with levels of brett, volatile acidity and other ‘faults’/quirks fare quite poorly, regardless of how tasty they are. This is where individual tasting scope and common sense comes into play; the system is after all, just a foundation to be built upon, not a stand-alone all encompassing solution. On a more personal note, below are three additional factors I subconsciously process when drinking wine outside of exam conditions:

Provenance – Is the wine easily identified? Put simply, I want wine to taste like the grape(s) it’s made from and the place it comes from as I appreciate tasting flavours and styles that have been built from decades of consistent work, regulation and tradition. Innovation is important but it has to have a solid basis other than some mad wine-makers personal philosophy if I’m going to part with hard earned cash in order to acquire it.

Accessibility – Can I drink this now or do I have to wait for a number of years before opening it? Put simply, a lot of high quality wines are quite aggressive when they’re very young and require time in the bottle for the components to integrate, soften and become more expressive. This is a problem if you live in Barcelona and rely on good friends with wine fridges to store your modest collection. As a result, I rarely buy wine anymore that I won’t be drinking within a year or two at the latest. This is a really personal one and if I had anywhere remotely appropriate for long term ageing, one I’d scrap in an instant. Probably.

Most importantly -Is it delicious? The most subjective factor of them all. Do you want to pour yourself another glass of it? Is it good enough that you’d want to share it with your friends? This may be no more objective than Alice Feirings consideration of ’emotional impact’, but it’s less pretentiously presented (I hope). I may be a wine geek but if I’m rushing to share a wine with someone, it’s far more likely to be this point than anything else.

I suppose the most important consideration of systematic tasting and analysis is to have a few criteria to go by, regardless of what they are. This is ultimately how we develop our own preferences, tasting experience and slowly start to unravel and learn the world of wine from a practical point of view. As soon as you start to stop and think about a glass of wine, your relationship to wine starts to change; for the better, I hasten to add! If you don’t already, the next time you drink a glass of wine take 30 seconds to ask yourself ‘What do I like about this wine?’ It’s well worth the time!

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